It was to be a long journey from Battle Creek, Michigan.
It was 1961 and my mother had made a life changing decision. She had grown up in Battle Creek, her family was there, her job at Schlure's Diner was there. But the cold winters, the snow, the sameness had begun to take their toll. I was four years old and often spent the winter months battling pneumonia or bronchitis. The doctor told my mother that a warmer climate would help.
A letter arrived from my biological father, my mother's ex-husband. He had left Battle Creek during the winter and was writing her from a place out west, Las Vegas. The streets were paved in gold there, money was to be made if you were willing to work hard, the weather was hot, sunny, rarely rained and snow- no one could remember the last time it had actually snowed in town- he wrote.
I remember my mother got out the Atlas and looked up where Las Vegas was located. She must have done some long term thinking. By August, we were packing up everything we owned. If it didn't fit in the U-Haul trailer or the trunk of the 1956 Ford, it wasn't going. I was allowed to take only a few of my toys. Top on the list was my Tiny Tears doll. Tiny had been a gift from Santa in 1959 and I loved that doll. When I had my tonsils out, they had to put Tiny on a gurney so she could have her tonsils out at the same time. The only thing I remember taking is that doll.
My grandfather, I'm sure, must have had some qualms and long talks with my mother. After all, she was about to embark on driving across the country, alone (except for me and Tiny), pulling a U-Haul trailer. My mother was barely 21 years old. She overcame all my grandfather's reasons for staying. A new life awaited out there in the West and she sensed that if she did not go now, the opportunity would be forever lost.
So, we loaded up that Ford, hugged my grandfather through our tears and started out on the journey that would forever change our lives.
We drove west, stopping to eat in small diners and sleeping in cheap auto court motels. I don't remember much about the trip until we got into New Mexico. I was fascinated by the alligator and snake farms that seemed to dot the highway. I begged my mother to stop every time we saw a sign for one. The trading posts filled with turquoise jewelry, kachina dolls and petrified wood intrigued me. The giant arrows in the ground, the giant jackalope, all the roadside attractions, I soaked that part of the trip in. We left Santa Fe one morning, determined to get well into Arizona before stopping for the night.
We were on Arizona side when, my mother says, I let out a wail to raise the dead. She thought I had been bitten or something worse. I was crying. I could not find Tiny anywhere in the car. She had to be there, my mother said. I whimpered "No, she's not. She's lost." My mother finally found a place to pull off the road and we took the car apart looking for Tiny. She was not in the car. I was inconsolable. Finally, my mother found a pay phone. She called the motel in Santa Fe where we had stayed the night before. Yes, they said, they had found Tiny and she was safe and sound.
I'm sure my mother must have cursed, if only in her head. I was adamant, I was not going on without Tiny. Finally, my mother knew there was but one thing to do. We got back in the car and drove back to Santa Fe. I was reunited with Tiny and we stayed another night at the motel. The next morning, Tiny safely in my arms, we began the final leg of our journey.
I don't remember where we stayed in Flagstaff. We could continue on, my mother said and go all the way to the beach. I had no idea what a beach was. I had been to Mackinaw Island and I had seen Lake Michigan but I had no idea how big the ocean was. Too tired, we decided that we would keep with our original plan and go to Las Vegas.
The next morning, a Friday, we packed up the car and got directions. It was a long drive. As we approached Hoover Dam, night was falling. The highway traffic slowed, all we could see was a long line of red tail lights. The highway narrowed to two lanes. The canyon walls loomed above us with boulders perched on them, somewhat precariously to my way of thinking. My mother told me to get in the backseat and be quiet. I obeyed. We had not seen traffic like this the entire trip and my mother wondered where the hell all these people could be going. By the time we crossed the Dam it was dark. She skillfully maneuvered the Ford and the U-Haul trailer along the windy road with its hair-raising turns towards Boulder City.
As we made our way out of Boulder City and down to Boulder Highway, there was a glow in the sky. The traffic was still with us. As we got closer to Las Vegas we realized that the glow in the sky was coming from all the neon lights of Las Vegas. All the cars we had wondered about were going to Las Vegas as well.
We turned up East Fremont Street and passed motel after motel. The Sky Ranch, the Sky View, the Peter Pan, the Blue Angel.
It was Friday night, Labor Day weekend, 1961. No Vacancy signs were lit on every motel. My mother and I had never seen so much neon in one place before. I was mesmerized by the moving signs, the colors, the western motifs.
We had arrived in the town without much fanfare. But for a four-year-old kid and a 21 year-old mother, it felt good and we knew we would not be going back to Battle Creek.
Las Vegas would be our home from that day on.